The series introduction to Herrn Dames Aufzeichnungen (Herr Dame’s Notebooks) calls it “the key novel about the Bohemian scene in Schwabing around 1900″ and the volume’s introduction notes that in it Reventlow worked through some of her experiences with the “Cosmic” circle that included writers and artists such as Stefan George (the only name I recognized), Karl Wolfskehl, Ludwig Klages and Alfred Schuler. The introduction matches characters from the book with the real people who were their models, so presumably the connections are obvious.
The Notebooks are framed by a story, which is set up as a direct address to the “friend and connoisseur” who receives a packet containing the Notebooks, of a brief shipboard acquaintance with Herr Dame (his surname means the same in German as it does in English) who had written down his impressions during an intense time in Munich but who had since left it forever. Having left everything behind, he was keen to dispose of the manuscript, leaving it with the authors of the frame story. Shortly after departing from the ship, he departed from life itself, perishing in a train wreck. The authors of the frame ask whether Dame’s diaries and sketches form a document humain (French in the original) and a suitable memorial for the engaging young man.
Dame came from Berlin to Munich to study at the university there, and soon after his arrival he falls in with people who are pushing at the boundaries of art, propriety, meaning and, in their perception, life itself. They have dubbed their part of town, clearly modeled on the neighborhood of Schwabing, Wahnmoching, which roughly translates as Crazyville. They wear the moniker proudly and see it as a state of mind more than a location. Some people find their way to Wahnmoching, others walk the same streets for years at a time and have no idea that Crazyville is developing all around them. Dame wants to belong to the circle of initiates, and the Notebooks trace his deepening acquaintance with artists, philosophers, and other Bohemians.
A doctor of philosophy explains to Dame, “Crazyville is the name of a part of the city, namely this part of the city, but that is just a matter of coincidence. It could have a different name or be re-named. Crazyville would nevertheless remain Crazyville. Crazyville in the figurative sense reaches far beyond the boundary of a part of a city. Crazyville is a spiritual movement, a niveau, a direction, a protest, a new cult or rather the attempt to create new religious possibilities from ancient cults — Crazyville is furthermore very, very different, and you will learn to grasp that only gradually.” (p. 26, all translations mine)
Some aspects of the story are specifically Munich, and specific to the early twentieth century. Others are recognizable to anyone who has been young and on the outskirts of a Bohemian scene. They are making new art, they are breaking conventions, they are finding new ways to live together, they are rediscovering the ancient and giving it new life, they are changing the world. In their view, most of their elders do not understand them. “One heard it said often [that Goethe was and is the best model for young Germans], and I can’t help myself — I see in that a certain arrogance of the older generation. No one helps us to live; instead, they content themselves with directing us toward great models and hoping that something extraordinary will become of us. What use to me is that kind of advice?” (p. 68) A few elders are venerated, and elevated to the role of guru.
In the Notebooks, the respected elders include the philosopher mentioned above, one Professor Hofmann, who leads the innermost circle of Wahnmoching’s elect, and Delius, whom the introduction lists as the Man with the Toga. Delius sees himself as an ancient Roman, slightly displaced. Much of the spiritual interest of Wahnmoching is concerned with bringing pagan elements back into the contemporary era. There is more than a whiff of the irrational, the pursuit of the constructed “Aryan,” and the casual anti-Semitism that would flower so sinisterly two decades after the book’s publication and make Munich the capital of the Nazi movement. Reventlow herself passed away in 1918, not even seeing the end of the First World War.
The young people are dramatic and amiable, clueless and intense, wanting to make the world anew while unknowingly recreating the society in which they grew up. Reventlow captures the hidden hierarchies of Bohemia, the sexual politics and rivalries, the sudden reversals endemic in such a social setting. For such a slender book of barely more than 100 pages, it’s vivid and compelling. The characters’ nights around a kitchen table or at parties where a bit too much of everything happens are as familiar as the ones I spent in various cities, trying to figure things out. And in the end, the young people really do change the world, simply by living their own lives through their own times. It may not be what they imagined in their fervor, but it lasts until the next generation comes along.
Except for Dame. The train wreck got him.